We have the most in common with our enemies…

It has often been said that we have the most in common with our enemies. This is, in many ways, true of Israelis and Palestinians. They occupy the same part of the world, have similar desires for nationhood, identity, safety and freedIsraeli times articleom, and even follow religions that are very similar. With a few changes, this angry letter from an Israeli could have been written by a Palestinian:

“But I will not apologise for surviving. For surviving missiles intended to kill me. The fact they didn’t kill me doesn’t mean they weren’t sent with the intention to murder. I will not apologise for living and surviving thanks to being prepared because we have a culture that celebrates our lives and cherishes them…I will not apologise for having a business, a home, a family and friends here who want normal lives and to live in peace with our neighbors. I will not apologise for existing and I want nothing more than to co-exist quietly with neighbors who accept me here.”

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shalom-motherfr/

Separation Point

for Shawn Cox

Before she ran into the road

and you arrived where she stood

is the place you cannot get back to,

no matter how often you drive

along the road,

stop again before the spot.

Before she fell into deep black asphalt

and you fell into the line of her life;

before she abandoned the ditch 

of flitting tadpoles, 

and the day dislodged you from your blessings;

before then is what you can’t get back to.

In the after, safety is luck

and the movements of the whirlpool

where cold fingers drag you.

Now darkness gleams, even in the sun, 

and every crease in your face 

lets night in. 

Every hole in the fence post,

dead tree in the ditch,

black cricket in grass.

The sudden blur of her body 

a divide between dark and day;

your heart cries for the horizon, 

and the black road threatens you with secrets,

a small girl running, unexpected, 

into the deepest place.

Inside of mood

dark-soul-cloudsI recently read a book by Jonathan Rottenberg, who describes depression as part of the mammalian mood system. The human mood system is designed to drive and shape behaviour – it pushes us in positive directions and away from bad ones. For example, if a bear is fishing for salmon in a spot that is usually really good and no fish appear, that bear will experience frustration and unhappiness. This mood state will cause him to stop trying to fish in that spot and look for anther one. If he finds fish elsewhere, his mood system will reward him with positive emotions.

With humans, if you set yourself difficult-to-achieve goals, or undergo extreme stress, your mood system will shift downward. It’s trying to tell you something, but you may not be as in-tune with your moods as the bear is, and you may not listen. If not, the mood system will downshift your mood again and again, until eventually you either adjust your goals, or become totally incapacitated by your mood. If you don’t pay attention to low moods and learn from them, they will stop you in your tracks.

The mood system knows much more than we do. It has inside information on the health of our bodies, information that we don’t have access to. If, for example, we are deficient in an essential nutrient, or we are severely sleep-deprived, or we are being bombarded by too many demands, our mood system will take all of these elements into account. If we set crazy, unrealistic goals, our mood system will do everything it can to stop us, and turn us onto a better path.

We are sometimes like a frog in a pot of  water that has been set to boil – the water starts out cool, but over time, it gradually heats up until we are boiling. Our mood system knows that pot of water is going to boil eventually and, if necessary, it will scoop you out and toss you to safety, where you might lie for months, wondering why you feel so bad. But at least you’re alive! The mood system gives you signals meant to influence your choices so that you survive and even thrive.

While our mood system sees clearly, and sends us clear signals, our society often places greater value on other signals that override these vitally important ones. Many of these other signals come in the form of prescriptions – you should be successful; you should be happy; you should be rich; you should be thin; and so on.

To go back to the bear analogy – what if the bear could be convinced that if he just kept on fishing in the unproductive spot on the river, he would one day catch the biggest salmon ever? What if the bear believed that if he didn’t catch that salmon it is really his fault – that he wasn’t a good enough fisher? What if he thought he was weird for feeling depressed about his situation and then started worrying about not being happy?

If the bear listened to that kind of talk, he would probably persist in fishing at that unproductive bend in the river until eventually he became so depressed he had a nervous breakdown and crawled into a hole for a long time. When he came out later, he would hopefully find a better place to fish.

But here is the hard part: we don’t always know we are doing things that are dangerous to our well-being. As Rottenberg points out, we live in a time and place that is a perfect storm for low mood.

We hardly get any sunlight and spend all our time indoors. We get far too little sleep, on average. Our diet and exercise patterns are poor. And I would add that modern living forces us to synchronize our biological rhythms to a very fast-paced work world – we have to show up on time, every day, week after week, year after year. All of these factors, and many others, affect our mood.

For these reasons, Rottenberg says that we are now experiencing a depression epidemic. Depression may protect us from futile, often dangerous behaviours, but it is a very costly adaptation. Depression can be even more difficult to deal with than the situation that triggered it. To recover you need help from doctors, therapists, friends, family and often medications.

It is a very difficult, but productive process, where you learn about yourself and grow as a human being. By listening to depression, you discover yourself and the world anew. Ultimately, Rottenberg’s understanding of depression is a very optimistic one, because although he makes clear that there are many ways to become depressed, there are also a great many ways to recover from it, and all of them offer the potential for growth and renewal.

Keep calm and wear a red suit

I just read an article about how Facebook can cause depression – at the very least, it tends to make people feel they are missing out. And it’s true – as I take in the sometimes carefully-curated FB profiles of my connections, I will inevitably feel I am less: less interesting, less connected, less successful.

ImageI quit Facebook a while ago, but set up camp there once more, this time with a completely open profile, with no security settings. I did this in part because I wanted to use the FB feed to follow news and features – I find the feed easier to use that Twitter – and because FB is the only way I stay in touch with certain friends and family who live overseas or across the country. The lack of security settings is to ensure that I don’t forget that there isn’t really any privacy to be had online, and there is no point in posting a bunch of photos of your kids in the bath and then fiddling with the security settings, thinking they provide any real protection. Better not to post those images at all.
Red Gi

However, recently I was feeling really excited about my progress in Karate, which I study at Douvris Martial Arts, in the west end of Ottawa with my senseis Fortunato and Domenic Aversa. I took a couple of photos of me in my gi and with Fortunato and posted them on FB. But doing so did not give me the chance to write the narrative that goes with those images: the story of how, after many years of “one step forward, two steps back,” I have finally started to get back into real physical shape – ten years of struggling to raise a child, and deal with asthma, weight gain, and stressful work schedules. This real story might reassure Facebookers seeing the images that I don’t have a perfect life, and I don’t sail through my days wearing a red suit and smiling.

Most people in my country and in western countries in general live with hectic, sometimes crushing schedules and stress related to work, family and finances.

And after the years of freedom I spent as a university student, I really expected better, and I was disappointed! It has not been an easy lesson, learning that as an adult, you always have to choose – will it be a house with a mortgage in town, or an apartment, which is more affordable? Will it be a house in the suburbs and a long commute, but you don’t have to work as much? Regardless of the choice it’s not really easy. Who knew that when I was a student and travelling around the country becoming a writer and an activist, I was really just preparing myself to get a job sitting all day in a cubicle with no windows? I mean some of the work in those grey-walled cubes has been interesting, but still. But I could do an activist job, or freelance…and then we could sell our centrally-located house near my son’s school, five minutes from transit! Ah well, such is life. Not much likelihood of finding a job as a feature writer making good coin. Not these days. Not unless you’re a well-established yuppie like Margaret Wente. But I’m not bitter.

But Karate makes it so worthwhile – having the chance to learn something beautiful, difficult and challenging with the two most humble teachers in the world, with a bunch of fascinating people ranging in age from 10 to 70, with professions as diverse as rocket scientist, doctor, boxing coach, programmer, patent researcher, violist, writer.

quappelle_valley_saskatchewan_WV04599
The Qu’appelle Valley: one of the stunningly beautiful places I visited in my youth, the better to disappoint me during endless hours in cubicles.

Inside the snow globe

In Being Human, ghosts are like snow. Like embracing someone who’s just come inside on a cold day. They bring grey sky in the door, and the clean air; they etch you with frost and ice crystals, making your cheeks red and your breath into clouds.

A ghost opens your door and shows you light shining through. She turns your lamps on at night and burns out your light bulbs. Blows the fuse in the bathroom. Boils pot after pot of water on your stove, making herself at home on the chesterfield. Full cups of tea appear all over the house. You look out the window at the full moon; it’s come down from the sky to inhabit you.snow globe

Mitchell tells Annie her lips are cold, a bit tingly, like kissing someone who just came in from outside. Mitchell knows Annie’s in the house. He feels a cold draught under the door; sees her by the window, colour of the moon. He’s burning up with memories of blood; all the people he’s left for dead in abandoned buildings and empty fields. They’re boiling over. Dripping down his skin. Faces of his victims press against the inside of his skull. Voices in the drains at night. He’s a twisting, moving fire.

He reaches for Annie. She soothes him with her cooling touch. He covers himself in her colours—grey and white, winter in the city: starlight and streetlight shining on paths of snow between the cinderblock buildings. She’s nighttime and the moon’s unblinking gaze.

Annie wonders, will she drift through the house forever? She’s so light she doesn’t even dent the cushions; she has no place in this world or the next. She looks through open doors and sees light, but no welcome. How long will it be? How long by the window, looking out? 

Mitchell says
Things move and shift and settle again. It’s like those— what are those snow storm things called?
Snowstorms.
Yeah, ’bout so big, glass?
No, they’re called snowstorms.
Right. Well, them. You shake them and it’s all mad and then it settles again. That’s what time is like.

That’s what Annie’s like, her translucent body. The world shifts and stirs in her, a frenzy of colour and sound. Outside, she hears footsteps on the walkway. Tires screeching in the road. Voices rising over the walls. Then everything settles once more into a cool bank of snow, shining in the streetlight, enveloping the world, cooling its fevers.

Thoughts from the continuum

I would like to challenge the notion that there are “mental” illnesses and “physical” illnesses – that certain illnesses are biological and others are psychological.

For example, what are the causes of high blood pressure? Well, according to WedMD, it is caused by the following factors, most of which are no less “psychological” than the causes of depression or anxiety disorders:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Too much salt in the diet
  • Too much alcohol consumption (more than 1 to 2 drinks per day)
  • Stress
  • Older age
  • Genetics
  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Adrenal and thyroid disorders

And if you look at the list, you will see that many of these “causes” of high blood pressure are the same as the causes of depression. The following all contribute to depression’s onset or its return after remission: stress, alcohol abuse, family history of depression, genetics, older age and lack of physical activity.

There are other known (and probably unknown) causes for depression, anxiety and high blood pressure, no doubt, but isn’t it interesting that people with high blood pressure are almost never sent to a psychologist for therapy, even though their condition would probably be improved by learning to cope better with stress, reduce alcohol consumption and change and improve lifestyle?

What about type 2 diabetes, many cases of heart disease and chronic pain? These conditions could also be improved through specific types of psychotherapy and counselling, often in conjunction with medication.

I have grown tired of the argument that people who suffer from certain “mental” illnesses like depression and anxiety should not take medications, but should instead see a therapist to get to the root of their problems.

These illnesses are not curable, as far as we know. They are conditions, just as high blood pressure and diabetes are conditions. Those who suffer from them have to manage them, usually with some combination of medication, exercise, stress reduction, nutrition and, often, psychotherapy. Why is it that people with conditions that can be measured with a blood pressure cuff or a blood sample are not so often told to get to the root of their problems?

And then we have scientists like Dr. Irving Kirsch, whose research into anti-depressant medications resulted in him confirming his own bias that the medications don’t work and are nothing but placebos. Imagine if you were a diabetic and had been taking a medication that helps you keep your blood sugar in check and a scientist publishes a study telling you that it’s all in your head?  “Guess what? Your medications don’t work! You just think they do!” That’s what Kirsch has done, and many media outlets trumpeted his message uncritically.

Scientists are in the midst of developing an antidepressant medication that works in hours instead of weeks. Perhaps if we start having medications that have rapid effects, the notion that antidepressants are nothing but placebos will come to an end.

We have learned that even our genes are influenced by our environment, with certain genes being turned on or off depending on the conditions in which we live. There is no absolute division between environmental and genetic causes of illness, just as there is no real dividing line between the psychological and the biological. It is all on a continuum. To believe otherwise is to create obstacles to wellness for people suffering from a great number of conditions. Why close the door on psychotherapy for high blood pressure problems? Why discourage sufferers from using medications for their anxiety?

I realize there is a problem with medications being overprescribed in many cases, but there is an even bigger problem with under-treatment of diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain and anxiety disorders.

Just as there are biological and psychological dimensions to all diseases, there is a moral aspect as well. We can call on sufferers to improve their diets, manage their stress, get to the root of their problems. We can deny health coverage to smokers who develop lung cancer. We can discourage medication because we are so sure that sufferers can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But moral judgements won’t reduce suffering or lower the great burden of disease that society continues to bear. The costs to us are enormous in terms of lost productivity, social breakdown, medical expenses and quality of life.

A man of conscience is a rare thing

Ever since I first saw the video of Edward Snowden, recorded in an undisclosed hotel room in Hong Kong, I have been following media reports on his whereabouts, his government’s attempts to “bring him to justice,” and the massive American spying program that he exposed.

Edward Snowden

When I saw the video, I was struck by the simplicity of Ed Snowden’s actions. When we are young, it’s easier to do the right thing, or perhaps the “right thing” is more clear to us, because we’re not worrying so much about protecting family, making a living and our personal safety. Snowden has left all these things behind.

Much of the power of his actions comes from this simplicity. No prevarication, justification, or any other five-syllable words. Snowden followed his conscience.

“I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’” Ed Snowden

Right now, the American government is paying lip service to the rule of law, and John Kerry, Secretary of State, has even suggested he is deeply troubled by China’s willingness to protect Snowden, which it did by allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong. The official Chinese response to the US request for the extradition of Snowden was that the American request “did not fully comply with the law.”

Given that Snowden had recently provided the Chinese government proof that the US has been hacking into its computer systems for years, it is hardly surprising that Chinese officials dragged their feet in handing Snowden over to US authorities.

I am mystified as to why John Kerry not more troubled by his country’s massive spying apparatus.  How can a presumably intelligent human being stand before the entire world and justify this massive, unconstitutional invasion of privacy? All this in the name of freedom from terrorism. As frightening as terrorism is, more people die in the US each year in traffic accidents. Far more.

And why are we not more troubled?  Western governments are able to count on our unwillingness to leave our comfort zone. We are anaesthetized by our attachment to comfort and material things, hypnotized by the drone of our daily routine: get up, go to work, navigate traffic, pay bills, do chores, go to sleep – a rhythm punctuated by moments of real connection to people, to nature, to ideas. But all in all, we are half-asleep, and the government is listening to all our chatter, listening for disturbances in the cadence of our activities.

“…you have to make a determination about what it is that’s important to you. And if living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept – and I think  many of us are because it’s the human nature – you can get up every day, go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” – Ed Snowden

Kerry defends the Obama administration’s spying policies and Obama calls on other governments to respect the rule of law. Yet what about America’s own constitution and laws? This huge spying program is illegal. America has no grounds to appeal to the rule of law. This is reality and we need to remind politicians of it.

And if I die before I learn to speak
Can money pay for all the days I lived awake
But half asleep?

-Primitive Radio Gods

A visit to Pass Control

This morning I went to Pass Control. I waited in line until the commissionaire called me forward on his intercom. He pushed open a metal drawer, where I placed my forms and ID. He closed the drawer and did the paperwork to get me a temporary pass, which he slid into the metal drawer. I took the card and sat back in my seat. A little while later, an old gentleman in uniform came to the entrance and called out “Pass Control! Anyone for Pass Control?” I got up and went with him. We passed through two sets of security doors, turned right, and then passed through another door. It had a Men’s Washroom sign on it. I was starting to feel a little nervous. Once through the Men’s Washroom door, we walked past the men’s and women’s washrooms and arrived at an elevator. Then we went down, down, down until we reached Pass Control. The old man left me there and I took a number. On a bulletin board nearby were posters advertising wanted men and posters offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of a variety of murderers and kidnappers. It was called the Military Police board. When my number was called, the clerk said “No. You need the person whose name is on this card (she handed me a business card) to approve this other person’s signature.” Back to my seat to wait for the elderly man in uniform, then up, up, up, and through the Men’s Washroom door, back out through the security doors and into the line-up. I slid my temporary pass once again into the metal drawer, got back my own ID and left the building.

Being Human

John Mitchell: I’ve got this friend. He says the human condition, the human nature, ‘being human’ – is to be cold and alone. Like someone lost in the woods. It’s safe to say he’s a ‘glass-is-half-empty’ kind of guy. And I see nature differently. I see the ancient machinery of the world. Elegant and ferocious, neither good nor bad, it’s full of beautiful things, unspeakable things. The trick is to keep them hidden – until the right moment.”

I happened upon the BBC version of Being Human on Netflix. As a Canadian, most of my TV viewing has been either American or CBC programs. Seeing BBC’s Being Human has made me realize how truly awful most mainstream American TV and film actually is. It is formulaic, boring, poorly acted, poorly written and beats the same themes of racism, sexual repression and violence to death over and over again. Now, I have NOT seen any HBO programs and I suspect there may be some very good shows on HBO.

What I love about Being Human is that the program is courageous. Nothing happens that is not fully considered – thought through all the way. If there is violence, it has a purpose, one that the actors, the writers, the set designers – everyone involved – seems to be aware of.

The show is a compassionate, funny, well thought-out exploration of the dark side of being human through the lives of people who are no longer human. The only American program that I can think of that reminds me of BH is Joan of Arcadia, which also seemed to move beyond unreflected violence and formulaic script writing to explore the depths of human life. But of course it was cancelled after two years!

Image

As far as American TV is concerned, I have gone on strike; called a boycott. I have decided that there is just so much wonderful programming to be found elsewhere that it will take me the rest of my life just to scratch the surface.

Braveheart has left the building

Now that the USADA report is out,  I’ve been thinking about how it could be that the sport of cycling was so dirty for so long; that an aggressive and single-minded athlete like Armstrong, for whom winning at all costs is more important than any else, could be so successful. I also wonder why we focus so much on medals. In Canada, I know there was been some discussion about why it is that government sponsorship for athletes destined to the Olympics is so heavily weighted in favour of winning medals, as opposed to excelling in a sport, whether that leads to medals or not.

There is a kind of contradiction in highly competitive sports. The intense competition brings out the best athletes, and their best performances. But it also brings out, and encourages, our worst qualities – like we have seen with Armstrong. Maybe the shocking extent of the problems in cycling will push the organizations and corporations attached to this sport to rethink their values – that competing in sports should not be about winning at all costs, and that we (the fans) need to stop looking to these athletes to fulfill our cultural fantasies about heroism. After all, the Tour de France is not Braveheart. If a person needs a hero, why don’t they get on a bike, or put on some runners, maybe get out the skis, and become their own hero? Failing that, why not just go see a movie?